My last few nights’ reading have been in the company of a very nice gentleman, in the city of Moscow, no less. Amor Towles is an American author whose book turned up in my local library, and I knew as soon as I saw the title that someone had recommended it so I brought it home. It turned out to be Tony from Tony’s Book World who’d described Towles as
a great literary stylist in the order of Vladimir Nabokov. A literary stylist knows that it is not our final destination that matters but the pleasures we have along the way. A stylist can go on and describe a game of Hide the Thimble for several pages, and we will not complain; in fact we will be charmed.
In 1922, in the wake of the Russian Revolution, Count Alexander Rostov is arrested by the Bolsheviks. His crime is that he is an aristocrat, but improbably, he evades summary execution or exile in Siberia because of his service in the prerevolutionary cause (as a poet) and is instead subjected to house arrest in the Hotel Metropol. No longer in his elegant suite, but in a poky attic upstairs, he adapts to his new circumstances with aplomb, guided by the advice of Montaigne:
The commonest way of softening the hearts of those we have offended, when, vengeance in hand, they hold us at their mercy, is by submission to move them to commiseration and pity. However, audacity and steadfastness – entirely contrary means – have sometimes served to produce the same effect. (p.40)
While the Count’s accommodation is claustrophobic, his circumstances seem quite congenial. He continues to dine well, to enjoy the hotel’s splendid cellar, and to have time for reading though his library is of necessity much reduced. He has gold coins secreted away in his furniture; he can still get his laundry done and his trousers mended. It’s true that the staff are no longer allowed to address him as ‘Your Excellency’; that the grand ballroom has been taken over by the Bolsheviks for policy and planning meetings; and the Metropol’s guests are not quite what they were, but the Count gets by, seemingly unbothered by the loss of his freedom – because the world comes to him, including his best friend Mishka, also a poet but of more reckless temperament. He also enjoys the company of the hotel staff Andrey and Emile, he has a lovely actress as a lover, and the friendship of a charming child called Nina whose parents are long term guests.
However Towles does not let the charming urbanity with which the Count negotiates his new circumstances conceal events outside the hotel. These focus on the Stalinist years, and there is very little about the Great Patriotic War (WW2). However, contrary to expectations, the picture is not entirely negative, with acknowledgement that Tsarist Russia was a backward country badly in need of reform, which was transformed into an industrial powerhouse and rival to the United States. When the Count, under The Thaw, is coaching a Soviet functionary called Osip in the genteel ways of the West, he relays Mishka’s views on the burning of Moscow and the toppling of statues, and the silencing of poets. Osip counters with a surprising point of view:
‘The Bolsheviks are not Visigoths, Alexander. We are not the barbarian hordes descending upon Rome and destroying all that is fine out of ignorance and envy. It is the opposite. In 1916, Russia was a barbarian state. It was the most illiterate state in Europe, with the majority of its population living in modified serfdom: tilling the fields with wooden ploughs, beating their wives by candlelight, collapsing on their benches drunk with vodka, and then waking at dawn to humble themselves before their icons. That is, living exactly as their forefathers had lived five hundred years before. Is it not possible that our reverence for all the statues and cathedrals and ancient institutions was precisely what was holding us back?’
Osip paused, taking a moment to refill their glasses with wine.
‘But where do we stand now? How far have we come? By marrying American tempo with Soviet aims, we are on the verge of universal literacy, Russia’s long-suffering women, our second serfdom, have been elevated to the status of equals. We have built whole new cities and our industrial production outpaces that of most of Europe.
‘But at what cost?’
Osip slapped the table.
‘At the greatest cost! But do you think the achievements of the Americans – envied the world over – came without a cost? Just ask their African brothers. (p. 297)
Osip goes on to say that the reason America and the USSR will lead the rest of the century is because they are the only nations who have learned to brush the past aside instead of bowing before it. The difference is that they have done so in the service of their beloved individualism while the USSR has done so in the service of the common good.
This perspective – that there might have been something valuable achieved under communism – is not what readers might expect of an American author in the age of triumphant capitalism.
Needless to say, however, A Gentleman in Moscow does depict some of the ‘costs’ so blithely dismissed by Osip. The years pass and Nina marries, departing with her husband and other Komosol youth to the Kady district, to aid the udarniks or ‘shock workers’ in the collectivisation of the region. As we know, things didn’t go so well under Stalin’s plans for agriculture and scapegoats had to be found, so before long Nina is back to ask the Count to care for her little girl while she follows her husband to Siberia.
As the years roll on and there is no sign of Nina, the Count progresses from being Uncle Sasha to Papa. At the same time officiousness begins to affect operations at the hotel and the Count’s lifestyle too. He is required to work, so he becomes a waiter, a job which suits his gourmet tastes since there is a daily meeting of The Triumvirate to taste test the day’s specials and to choose a splendid matching wine. Alas, the day arrives when someone has decided that it’s contrary to soviet principles to have wine that only the rich can afford, so all the wines have their labels removed and are sold for the same price. (Can you imagine it? You might get a Grange, or you might get a bottle of Jacob’s Creek!) An officious manager nicknamed The Bishop institutes a process of inventory and ordering so onerous that meals arrive at the table stone cold. Worse, he insists on attending the Triumvirate’s meetings, imposing economies and suggesting incompatible side dishes to use up what’s in the pantry. And The Count’s friend Mishka chafes under the policies imposed on literature and the arts …
But these sombre events are only episodes in the broader canvas of the Count’s life. A Gentleman in Moscow is a testament to the human spirit – uplifting, droll, exciting, and utterly seductive. I’m going to see if I can find this author’s first novel Rules of Civility as well.
Author: Amor Towles
Title: A Gentleman in Moscow
Publisher: Penguin Random House UK, 2016
Source: Kingston Library
Available from FishpondA Gentleman in Moscow